WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul Ryan pushed back Tuesday at critics alleging he’s lost effectiveness as GOP leader, and shrugged off the suggestion that he could leave his leadership post before his planned retirement at the end of the congressional session.
“Look, the members drafted me into this job because of who I am and what I stand for. I think members very much agree that we should be completing our agenda and our work,” Ryan said Tuesday at the weekly House GOP leadership news conference. “Our members realize what we want to do is act on our agenda, improve people’s lives and having a divisive leadership election at this time would prevent us from doing that.”
Even if there were a leadership election, it’s unlikely that no one except Ryan could garner the 218 votes needed to win.
The speaker, however, seemed to acknowledge that the dynamics could change: “Obviously, I serve at the pleasure of our members.”
Ryan's comments followed a string of recent reports — including one on the front page of his hometown newspaper in Wisconsin — that seemed to suggest his power on Capitol Hill was waning, with members bucking GOP leadership anew on several fronts, including a push for votes on immigration measures the speaker has resisted bringing to the floor.
This week, the conservative Weekly Standard published a story alleging that the White House and top Republican leaders had been mulling a plan to push Ryan out and make House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California speaker — a report that McCarthy himself called untrue Tuesday.
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Ryan announced on April 11 that he would not seek re-election in November, though he planned to hold on to his leadership post for the remainder of his term.
“I’ve talked to a lot of members — a lot of members think it’s in all of our best interests for this leadership team to stay in place and to run through the tape,” he said at a press conference a day later.
The weeks since have been a bit bumpy for Ryan. Last month, he came under fire from both Democrats and Republicans after he tried to force out the Rev. Patrick Conroy, the chaplain of the House of Representatives. He later reversed himself amid a major backlash from members and Conroy's own announcement that he was rescinding his resignation.
Meanwhile, over the objections of GOP leaders, a group of moderate Republicans created a discharge petition to force floor votes on a variety of immigration proposals.
And to thwart those efforts, the conservative Freedom Caucus demanded a vote last Friday on a conservative immigration proposal ahead of a scheduled vote on the farm bill. Leadership assured those members that they could plan for an immigration vote next month, but that wasn’t good enough — in a blow to GOP leaders, the farm bill failed.
“Obviously last Friday was regretful. Obviously we did not want to see members take down the farm bill,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday of the incident. “What we’re trying to do is to find where the consensus sweet spot is [on immigration]. It is a very difficult issue. Immigration is an issue that has a lot of passionate positions, a lot of passionate thoughts.”
“I can guarantee you that a discharge petition will not make law — so what’s the point?” Ryan added.
His argument hasn't swayed petition supporters looking to force floor votes on proposals including a conservative immigration bill, a bipartisan version of the Dream Act and a bipartisan bill to protect people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program while enhancing border security. If all Democrats sign onto the petition, it would need at least 25 of the 236 members of the GOP conference, to be successful. As of Tuesday, 20 House Republicans had signed on.
After a closed-door meeting with House Republicans, Rep. Jeff Denham of California said Tuesday that he anticipates more GOP members to add their names this week to the petition he sponsored along with Reps. Carlos Curbelo Florida and Will Hurd of Texas, all of three whom represent districts that are considered toss-up races in November's midterm elections and areas that have large Hispanic populations.
But Denham expressed sympathy for Ryan. “He’s been a great speaker and he continues to juggle a lot of different issues at once and this is certainly a tough issue. Neither party has been able to address this for decades,” he said.
Despite the immigration rebellion, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the deeply conservative Freedom Caucus, told reporters Tuesday that he thinks Ryan can serve out the rest of his term, and denied that there was any sort of uprising brewing. “There is no talk of a motion to vacate the chair or anything like that,” he said.
“I don’t want a fight for the speakership right now. That would just distract us,” added Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho.
Of course, someone will eventually replace Ryan — but, say members, recent history suggests their experience isn't likely to differ too much from the current speaker's. Whoever takes the gavel is “going to end up being the scapegoat for every issue. That’s just the reality of it,” said Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla.